April 18, 2008

Talented 'D' seeks consistency

It wasn't anything that hadn't been heard before; yet hearing it from the normally-reserved John Chavis somehow was different Thursday when Tennessee concluded spring drills.

The Volunteers' veteran defensive coordinator acknowledged and embraced the potential for greatness from his secondary.

"In the secondary, and this didn't just happen in spring practice but it happened as the year went along last year," said Chavis, entering his 20th season as a UT coach, "but I think our secondary, as young as it is, our secondary has the chance to be the strength of our defense."

Chavis later elaborated on the unit's depth and potential. Tennessee returns three official starters from last year's SEC East title team and a total of seven letterwinners in its secondary. DeAngelo Willingham earned most improved honors this spring after earning a starting job midway through last season. Though he missed spring drills with a shoulder injury, Brent Vinson nabbed Freshman All-SEC accolades last year. Both Willingham and Vinson will have to fight off return man extraordinaire Dennis Rogan to keep their starting slots.

"I think potential is a good word. It would be fair to say, 'Yeah,' to (the) statement," of potentially the best secondary, Chavis said. "There's no question. Potentially, we have a chance to be outstanding. It's been two years running that we've not been able to put our fifth and sixth defensive backs on the field.

"Coming out of spring practice, we feel very confident that we can do that."

The unit is anchored by blossoming superstar Eric Berry, a prodigious talent who last year earned Freshman All-America honors and started each of the Vols' 14 games. Junior Demetrice Morley returns after a one-year hiatus because of academic woes. It's that duo that again has Chavis heaping heretofore unheard of praise.

"I think that (Morley's return) gives us two really good players at safety," Chavis said. "And I'm not sure since I've been coordinator here that we've had a pair of safeties that are as good as these two or as good as these two can be and we expect them to be."

While the secondary was considered a strength moving into spring, Chavis thinks his defense answered some questions along its defensive front and linebacking units through spring camp. Chavis specifically cited the improvement of Rico McCoy, a second-team All-SEC pick last year, as primed to elevate his play.

"He was second-team All-SEC last year and you wonder where he could get better," Chavis said. "He got better from a pass-coverage standpoint and the disciplines and techniques. Savion Frazier is another really good prospect who will factor in big for us next year at linebacker."

Steady senior Ellix Wilson, who McCoy insists will generate a breakout farewell campaign, and seniors Nevin McKenzie and Adam Myers-White round out of the top four.

Chavis knows the linebackers plus a relatively thin and moderately inexperienced frontline must clamp down on stopping the run after yielding 164.5 yards per game in '07, ninth in the SEC.

"Obviously, we've been doing this for a long time. At times last year, we were as bad as we've been," Chavis said. "And then at times, against some of the better teams, we were as good as we've been. The thing I want us to do is be more consistent. Against teams that ran the ball better last year -- Georgia, Arkansas -- we played better.

"We need to be consistent. The big thing is giving up big plays. � We were not very good. But at the same time, we played some of our better football against the teams that were the best running teams in the league."

Chavis also thinks the pass rush could be improved, with ends Wes Brown and Robert Ayers, the other most improved recipient, anchoring the edge at the close of camp.

"We do" feel better, Chavis said. "We'll see as the season goes on, but certainly I feel like we're at a much better point than we were at this time last year. Those two ends have created a lot of that situation for us. We've worked it a lot more. We'll see how we match up in the fall. But we do feel better right now than we did this time a year ago."

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